There’s no oxygen in space

Dr. Wendy Sue Universe

Dr. Universe,

What happens when you get stung by a bee? And what happens to the bee?

— Fatima, 9, Nigeria

A few different things happen when a bee stings you, and a few things happen to the bee, too.

When I got your question, I called up my friend Brandon Hopkins, who works as a honeybee researcher at Washington State University

Just as bees have a defense system that helps them survive in the world, humans have a defense system of their own.

If you get a bee sting, it’s likely that your body’s immune system — which works to protect you — will kick into gear. The body will detect unusual invaders, or the molecules in the bee venom. As the immune system responds to these invaders, you might experience some redness, itchiness, swelling or rarely, a severe allergic reaction.

When Hopkins was first working with honeybees and got stung, he would swell up and itch a lot. But now when he gets stung it just looks like a little bug bite. The sting still hurts though. Over time his body’s immune system has recognized the venom in his body isn’t really going to do any harm.

Of course, everyone’s body is a little different. The reaction from a bee sting in one person might be quite different from a reaction in another person.

Now, for the bee’s perspective. Hopkins reminded me honeybees, wasps, bumblebees and yellow jackets sting in different ways. Wasps, bumblebees and yellow jackets can sting you multiple times. They don’t lose their stinger when they fly away. But honeybees can only sting once.

Part of the reason for this has to do with the body parts the honeybee uses to sting. First, there is the honeybee’s stinger. It isn’t exactly like a needle, but rather a pair of saws that work side by side.

Then, there are the muscles. A honeybee uses its muscles to slide those saw-like parts back and forth. Meanwhile, the muscles help pump venom from the bee’s venom sack into the animal it wants to sting. All of these parts work together to help the honeybee defend itself.

After the honeybee flies away, it leaves behind this little packet of stinger, venom, and muscles in your skin. This causes so much damage to the bee that it can no longer live. But the stinger packet can keep on stinging. As Hopkins put it, it’s a kind of “self-operating stinging machine.”

Before they fly off and die, honeybees will also release some chemicals called pheromones into the air. The pheromones set off a kind of alarm to let other honeybees nearby know what’s up. If another honeybee picks up on the chemicals, it might also go into stinging mode.

But for the most part, bees don’t really want to sting you, Hopkins said. Usually, they are busy taking care of their family or moving pollen around which helps us produce everything from flowers to fruits to vegetables. For the honeybee, a sting is truly the last resort.

Have a science question? Ask Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, WSU’s resident science cat and writer, by email at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu, on her website at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu, via Twitter at @AskDrUniverse or at facebook.com/AskDrUniverse.

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